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January is for many a time for ambition and goal-setting. Despite this, and the fact that the City’s own Climate Risk and Vulnerability Assessment (CRVA) projects that “Ottawa will continue to become warmer, wetter and have more unpredictable extreme weather events over the coming decades,” the City of Ottawa’s 2024 Budget reveals a continued lack of ambition for environmental protection and climate action, threatening our ecosystems and communities.
On December 6, 2023, City Council approved the $5.8 billion budget, allocating only $278 million to projects for climate-related purposes, including just $5 million for implementing the 2020–2025 Climate Change Master Plan (CCMP). This plan focuses heavily on mitigating emissions from city infrastructure, leaving deficits for community-based action and adaptation.
As this Council's first term concludes, its unwillingness to acknowledge and act on the intricate links between climate change and municipal priorities like affordable housing, mobility, resilience and a strong economy grows evident. Council consistently places environmental concerns on the back burner, exemplified by the lack of climate considerations that committees brought to Council on December 6. For instance, only one of the three capital projects from the Planning and Housing Committee for 2024 will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and none included a focus on climate resilience; Council spent no time at their December 6 meeting delving into this. Moreover, Councillor Hill’s direction to staff aims to readjust how the $5 million CCMP budget is allocated, potentially delaying implementation of critical climate initiatives. Councilors Menard, Bradley, and Johnson questioned Hill’s motion, expressing fears that this could hinder the effectiveness of Ottawa’s forthcoming Climate Resiliency Strategy. Menard rightly argued that Council’s problem is not with how the CCMP budget is allocated, but how under-resourced Ottawa's climate budget is, especially compared to other projects like the $419 million dedicated to Lansdowne 2.0.
Meanwhile, motions at the December 6 meeting that could offer both environmental and social benefits, such as Councillor Bradley’s proposal to freeze transit fares to support affordability, failed 10 to 15. Council appears resistant to addressing their top priorities with intersectional solutions - that is, solutions that reduce multiple societal inequities simultaneously to promote the equitable distribution of wealth, opportunities, rights and power. Making transit more financially accessible is an intersectional solution that cultivates climate justice, addressing both human rights and environmental impact. Intersectional solutions may cost more up-front, but offer significant long-term cost savings for people and the planet (see, for instance, this C40 Cities report promising long-term health, energy, and operational savings).
What’s more, Council seems hesitant to even mention climate change. Councillor Hubley’s direction to staff wants to explore opportunities to open splash pads earlier in the season and for longer because temperatures are getting hotter, earlier, and for longer. Splash pads act as cooling zones, especially for vulnerable populations like children. Hubley never explicitly mentioned ‘climate change’ as driving the need for change. Was this intentional to avoid ruffling feathers with less progressive Council members? Or was it an oversight? Both rationales fail to reflect the leadership needed to manage local climate impacts.
Thankfully, some Councillors are demanding the necessary action, including Councillor Leiper, who demanded systemic re-thinking of Ottawa’s wasteful behaviours. While Budget 2024 includes funding for a waste-to-energy incinerator, Leiper believes “we don’t have a disposal problem, we have a consumption problem.” Councillors like Menard and Luloff advocated for intersectional solutions like safer pedestrian crossings and public park enhancements. Councillor Kavanagh has been a strong environmental advocate throughout 2023. However, having a few climate/environmentally conscious Councillors cannot foster meaningful change without a majority vote.
Council's fragmented and lackluster approach to climate change is outdated and risks compromising local resilience and quality of life in the face of climate change and environmental degradation, not to mention creating costly damage to the city infrastructure that Council is responsible for. The CRVA demonstrates that climate change will hinder housing solutions, hurt vulnerable populations and aging infrastructure, and more. On the flip side, officials managing housing, infrastructure, and other focus areas overlook these links. So while the Environment and Climate Change Committee is tasked with linking these issues across city affairs, the other City committees have no obligation to do so. Instead, Ottawa needs to integrate climate across departments, an approach that Ecology Ottawa has campaigned for via the creation of a General Manager for Climate.
As the CRVA warns, failing to incorporate a climate lens across city governance presents “significant risks to the physical and mental health of residents, visitors and staff, the construction, operation and maintenance of City infrastructure, the delivery of community, emergency and recreational programs and services, the operation of the economy and the natural function of ecosystems.” To minimize the damage, Council must boost its climate budget and committees must break down conceptual siloes to support intersectional climate solutions like retrofitting, emergency preparedness, and research. City projects should meet a certain level of climate resilience before proceeding; Calgary’s formal target for Climate Risk and Resilience Assessments offer a strong model.
With three years left in their term, it's not too late for Council to course correct and make Ottawa a leader in climate action. Let’s make 2024 the year of change.